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University of Chicago Library reunites 'most popular medieval love poem' with its mate

Feb. 7, 2008

The University of Chicago Library acquired a 14th-century manuscript of “Le Roman de la Rose,” or “The Romance of the Rose”—which scholars have referred to as the most popular medieval love poem — reuniting it after a 100-year separation with a manuscript with which it was previously bound.

In 1907, the manuscript of “Le Roman de la Rose” was separated from that of “Le Jeu des Échecs Moralisé,” or “The Moralized Game of Chess,” which the University of Chicago Library acquired in 1931.  

Both manuscripts will be on display in the Library’s Special Collections Research Center at 1100 E. 57th St., beginning Feb. 14 as part of the exhibition: “Romance and Chess: A Tale of Two Manuscripts Reunited.” Opening remarks will be made at 12:30 p.m. at the Valentine’s Day opening by Alice Schreyer, Director of the Special Collections Research Center; Daisy Delogu, Assistant Professor of Romance Languages and Literature; and Aden Kumler, Assistant Professor of Medieval Art and Architecture at the University of Chicago. The event is free and open to the public. The exhibit will run through March 14.

“Bringing the two parts of this book back together will enable discoveries that would not be possible if they remained apart,” Schreyer said.

Added Delogu, “This ‘Le Roman de la Rose’ manuscript has extraordinary potential to enrich research and teaching opportunities here at Chicago, and will be of interest to scholars of manuscript culture and literary studies worldwide. ‘Le Roman de la Rose’ is arguably the single-most influential vernacular text of the late French Middle Ages.”

In addition to selected photographs and information already available online, the Library plans to add digital surrogates of the manuscripts to its Web site by Feb. 14 at http://roseandchess.lib.uchicago.edu.

The initial section of “Le Roman de la Rose,” an allegorical poem on the art of love, was written by Guillaume de Lorris beginning in the late 1230s — at the height of the age of courtly love and chivalry. The poem was extended and completed between 1270 and 1280 by Jean de Meun, who presented a more rational and cynical view of love. Numerous copies of the poem were made. The copy acquired by the University of Chicago Library was created in France about 1365 — almost 100 years before the invention of the printing press. The manuscript includes more than 40 miniatures by the Master of Saint Voult, an artist associated with illuminators who worked for King Charles V.

Chicago’s manuscript of “Le Jeu des Échecs Moralisé” was also created in France about 1365, and includes 13 illuminations by the Master of Saint Voult. The recorded provenance, or ownership history, of the two manuscripts bound together in one book dates to the 16th century.

In 1907, the manuscripts were purchased at Sotheby’s by Sir Sydney Cockerell, who had the volume disbound. The University of Chicago acquired “Le Jeu des Échecs Moralisé” in 1931; Cockerell sold “Le Roman de la Rose”to an antiquarian bookseller, Pierre Berès, in 1957, who later sold it to a private individual. The manuscript remained in private hands until it was purchased by the gallery Les Enluminures LTD of Paris and Chicago.

Sandra Hindman, a University of Chicago alumna who represented Les Enluminures, recognized the unusual provenance of the manuscript.

“Very few manuscripts of ‘Le Roman de la Rose’ now exist in private hands, so the opportunities for collectors — individuals or libraries — to acquire a copy remain very limited,” Hindman said. “This one, with its sterling provenance and its rich 14th-century cycle of illumination by an artist of the French court, is unusually fine.”

Members of the Library Visiting Committee, the University of Chicago Library Society, individual donors and the B.H. Breslauer Foundation also recognized the importance of bringing the manuscripts together. Their donations, combined with library endowments, made the purchase of this “Le Roman de la Rose” possible.  It is now one of the highlights in the University of Chicago Library’s collection of early manuscripts, which also includes more than 60 Goodspeed New Testament manuscripts.

University faculty members in the departments of art history, music, Romance languages and literatures, English and history are pleased about the impact that the acquisition will have on research and teaching at Chicago. 

“The reunion of parts of a medieval manuscript provides a rare and wonderful opportunity,” said Christina von Nolcken, Associate Professor in English Language & Literature and Chair of the Committee on Medieval Studies.  “This is especially the case today, when scholars tend to work with manuscripts as a whole rather than with individual texts.”

“The ‘Le Roman de la Rose’ manuscript will make an ideal centerpiece for a wide range of teaching projects,” Kumler said. “I will make it a focal point of several courses, including classes examining the commercial book trade in Paris, the politics of luxury in the Middle Ages and the history of medieval illuminated manuscripts.”

In response to the acquisition, Kumler and Delogu are planning to teach a graduate seminar which will focus entirely on “Le Roman de la Rose” as a literary and visual construct.


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Last modified at 02:51 PM CST on Thursday, February 07, 2008

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